LeBron James is probably the only player that could get criticized for leading an NBA team to an NBA Title. Actually, leading three different teams to an NBA Title. Seemingly minutes after James accepted his fourth Finals MVP award, as a result of his fourth NBA Title, a large community found wiggle room to criticize. James said, “I want my damn respect, too,” was critiqued by many, and others believed that this championship was less-difficult to obtain because of the unusual circumstances inside of the bubble. I’m here to dead that noise because it’s untrue on so many different levels.
In fact, this was LeBron’s hardest-earned championship run due to the extenuating circumstances that forced him to further prove his ability to lead.
After a 2018-19 season that ended with half of the Lakers team injured, which left them out of the playoffs, this season came with added pressure. Adding Anthony Davis to the roster definitely benefitted LeBron’s quest for his fourth title, but doesn’t wipe away what 2020 had to offer.
The Lakers had 2.5 months of the season, where things were smooth sailing. Then the saddest day in Laker history came on Jan. 26 when Kobe Bryant tragically passed away. Kobe was a mentor to both of the Lakers’ superstars, which impacted them more than any of us could conceptualize.
While taking the emotional hit of losing a big brother-figure, the Lakers, but specifically LeBron, got hit with added pressure to be great. The expectations were already there with a Laker team that had two perennial all-stars and a hand-picked supporting cast, but this undoubtedly heightened their expectations.
A month and a half later, on March 11, the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus in Oklahoma City, OK. Shortly after, the league’s season got canceled.
Disclaimer: Every time I bring this up, the person I’m talking to mentions that James got almost five month’s worth of rest while the NBA meticulously worked on restarting. What those people fail to mention was that LeBron, alongside Adam Silver and Chris Paul, was an integral part of making the NBA restart a success.
The obstacles weren’t over for LeBron and the Lakers. While no NBA player, staff, or media member tested positive for the virus in the bubble, there were other obstacles that teams had to traverse through. Some failed. Some teams underachieved, and some teams overachieved. Some players like Lemon Pepper Lou and Danuel House weren’t disciplined enough to abide by the rules of the bubble, which ended up being distractions, hindering their team’s success.
Speaking of distractions, on Aug. 26, the NBA came to another halt after the Milwaukee Bucks unexpectedly decided to boycott their game following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The league followed suit, and once again, there were talks of ending the NBA season. This time, because players didn’t want to play basketball when America was dealing with yet another tragic issue of racial injustice and police brutality.
During a zoom call between all the NBA teams in the bubble to decide whether or not they’d continue the season, the Lakers were one of the three teams that voted not to play the remainder of the season. The mental toll this must have taken on every player in the league is seems to be forgotten. With the Lakers being one of the three teams that voted to end the season, that means they were mentally, and emotionally checked out. Rightfully so.
James has been one of, if not the most outspoken athlete during all that has taken place with police brutality and social injustice. Yet, some will still try to dig to find something that lessens the significance of this championship run for James and the Lakers.
The easiest argument contrary to LA’s run is that since the playoffs took place in a bubble, with virtual fans and no real homecourt advantage, it wasn’t as significant as years past. However, this season and this bubble presented a slate of new challenges that other seasons did not.
The bubble didn’t diminish the player’s talent. The Lakers still had to make it past Portland, although Damian Lillard got hurt in Game 4 of a five-game series. They dominated the Houston Rockets in five games, despite having the highest-scoring duo in NBA history to get past with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. All the prodigious offensive performances and 3-1 comebacks by Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, and the Denver Nuggets didn’t matter because LeBron, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers were mentally and physically on a different level than them.
Their win over the Cinderella team, the Miami Heat, was their toughest test, and coincidentally, the Eastern Conference champions were the most mentally tough team in their conference as well, definitively led by one man named Jimmy Butler. The two teams that made it to the Finals shared mental toughness and having a definitive leader.
This season showed us all that this wasn’t an easier road to a title. It was far more strict and presented more obstacles than any other season in NBA history. How was this a cakewalk?